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Robert R. Reilly, January 2011

When Naxos released its first Jonathan Leshnoff CD with his Violin Concerto and First String Quartet (8.559398), I was struck by this young composer’s vivid imagination and sophisticated ear for sonorities, as well as the soaring lyricism and passion of his music. As I said then, “These works have immediate appeal, but the attraction strengthens with further acquaintance because the music has an underlying introspective character of real depth.”

Paul Cook
American Record Guide, July 2009

The music of Jonathan Leshnoff (b 1973) falls squarely in the middle of contemporary American romanticism. Its melodic lines are quite distinct, its harmonics balanced, its depth given by the composer’s mastery of both counterpoint and colorful orchestration. Though richly tonal, this is music quite distinct from anything else that’s out there at the moment.

Leshnoff’s Violin Concerto (2006) is a five movement work loosely based on the travails of a Holocaust survivor. The violin conjures Jewish folk melodies without quoting them directly, as the work’s movements alternate between fast passages and very slow, elegiac ones. Distant Reflections (2003) is for violin and orchestra and is something of an American Lark Ascending without any of Vaughan Williams’s melancholy. As in the previous work, Charles Wetherbee is the violinist, and his style has a selflessness to it that’s quite refreshing. He shines where cadenzas call for it, but seems quite comfortable in his obligato roles.

Quartet 1, Pearl German (2006) is based on the four seasons, with Winter coming first. That helps the work seem more coherent than most other string quartets: it has more depth and is much more thematically cohesive. IV, Summer, is the standout: a solemn cross between Barber and Shostakovich in their more dour moments. This is very attractive music and the kind of release that Naxos is known for. Sound is superb, especially for the quartet.

Edith Eisler
Strings Magazine, July 2009

Jonathan Leshnoff (b. 1973) is composer-in-residence of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra. He’s also a prolific, versatile composer with an open, receptive mind and an open, compassionate heart. He wrote his Violin Concerto in 2005, but reworked it extensively after consulting with his soloist, Charles Wetherbee. This is the revised version. The five-movement concerto was inspired by a story about one of Hitler’s death-camps, whose inmates were forced to sing Nazi songs at work, but secretly infused them with Hebrew prayers. The slow second movement and the final introspective elegy represent the prayers-their motifs also appear in the restless, agitated fast movements. The music conveys the subtext’s powerful emotions through strong contrasts of tempo, mood, texture, and dynamics; the orchestration is masterful. The very demanding solo part exploits the violin’s every technical and tonal resource, notably the highest register. Wetherbee plays it with great virtuosity and expressiveness, making the most of the soaring melodies and intimate conversations with the orchestral soloists.

“Distant Reflections” (2003) is slow and contemplative, showing influences of pretonal and early Baroque music. Scored for offstage string quartet-onstage solo violin and piano and divided strings-it is all texture and color with high, floating harmonics; wispy, murmurous textures alternate with chattering running passages.

The String Quartet No. 1 (2006) was commissioned by Leshnoff’s patron Jeremiah German for his wife’s 80th birthday. Subtitled “The Four Seasons,” its opening movement, “Winter,” is slow and dreamy; the first violin soars above static chords that die away. “Spring” contrasts pizzicato and bounced bows, first in unison, then apart, and features jumpy intervals and offbeat accents. Flanked by a languid introduction and ending, “Summer” is a lively march-the first violin moves over and around sustained chords. “Autumn” is slow and mournful-growing out of each other, lines rise up with increasing intensity, then fade away. Led by Charles Wetherbee, the Carpe Diem Quartet, Ohio Wesleyan University’s in-residence group, gives a lovely, committed performance.

Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, July 2009

New Jersey-born Jonathan Leshnoff (b. 1973) was cited in 2006 by the Baltimore Sun as an “Artist to Watch.” Currently an associate professor of music at Towson University in Maryland and composer in residence of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, he has had his works performed in the U.S. by, among others, the orchestras of Buffalo, Kansas City, Columbus, Ohio, Duluth, and Boca Raton, and internationally by orchestras in Tokyo and Madrid. Naxos has scheduled three recordings in its “American Classics” series devoted exclusively to Leshnoff’s music. This is the first to be released.

A review in the Kansas City Star noted “a diaphanous orchestral fabric of beautiful transparency,” and the Baltimore Sun described the composer’s work as “remarkably assured, cohesively constructed, and radiantly lyrical.” With both of these opinions I can wholeheartedly agree, having listened to and been thoroughly captivated by the pieces on this disc. Let’s face it: Leshnoff is an unapologetic Romantic, and I love him for it. He belongs to a school of young, contemporary American composers who have rediscovered the beautiful in music. To be sure, there is much in these scores that could not have been written by a composer not fully in and of our own time—propulsive, irregular rhythms, unusual combinations of instruments that result in striking coloristic effects, free tonality, and dissonance generated by the friction of juxtaposed strata of sound moving against each other, but always with a destination and purpose of resolution in mind. And there is much that is derivative of earlier models—Bartók, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Samuel Barber come to mind. But Leshnoff puts it all together in a way that speaks in a personal voice, and that offers more than a few moments of arresting beauty and deeply moving music.

The Violin Concerto (heard here in its revised 2007 version) is in five movements, and though without a programmatic subtitle per se, is invested with a powerful subtext, described in the booklet note, which was related to the composer by a Holocaust survivor. The second movement, simply marked Slow, has Shostakovich written all over it; while the “diaphanous orchestral fabric” cited above can be heard beginning at 1:37 in the fourth movement in a passage that sounds just a little too close for comfort to the closing bars of the first movement of Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto. The whole of Leshnoff’s work, however, is of such “radiantly lyrical” loveliness that, listening to it, I find myself transported and not much caring whence or from whom Leshnoff found inspiration. New to me is violin soloist Charles Wetherbee—he also serves as first chair of the Carpe Diem String Quartet—which sounds as transported as I was. He plays with an angelic sweetness, but is also quite capable of producing a resolute tone and delivering the goods in those technical passages that require it. But overall, this is a sorrowful and soulful work that elicits from Wetherbee a warm, incandescent sound.

Premiered by Wetherbee and the Columbus Symphony Orchestra in 2003, Distant Reflections begins with a slightly Oriental-sounding searching or groping idea that reminded me vaguely of the opening to Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. But Leshnoff’s runic, Renaissance reflections hark back to the Flemish masters of the second half of the 15th-century, twice quoting from Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationum. With an offstage string quartet, an onstage solo violin, and a string section divided into as many as 13 parts, you could think of the work as an updated amalgamated version of Vaughan Williams’s A Lark Ascending and Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen. The piece doesn’t actually sound like either of them, and I’m sure Leshnoff didn’t think so either, but the compositional techniques are somewhat similar.

The String Quartet No. 1 (2006) was commissioned by Jeremiah German to celebrate the 80th birthday of his wife, Pearl. So that explains the “Pearl German” of the work’s nickname. In the tradition of Vivaldi and others, the Quartet is a four-movement work depicting the four seasons. Leshnoff’s work begins with “Winter,” because Pearl’s birthday was in January. Beyond that, there is no reason for the order of movements, nor does Leshnoff engage in musical onomatopoeia beyond the evoking of obvious moods: winter is static and subdued; spring, bouncy and plucky (pun intended—there’s lots of pizzicato); summer, indolent; and autumn, muted. The whole is very reminiscent of Shostakovich’s string quartets. The Carpe Diem String Quartet, also new to me, sounds simpatico and well matched to Leshnoff’s muse, though three of the work’s four movements are relatively undifferentiated in content and style, so it’s hard to tell how the ensemble would fare in music more varied in substance.

I am giving this CD a strong recommendation because, personally, I find Leshnoff’s work quite fetching. But I must temper this with a cautionary note: some may find a bit too much sameness in these pieces, as if they were all cut from similar cloth, while others, if not bothered by that, may find Leshnoff’s music a bit too pandering to the culture of commercial art. Still, call me a man of simple, unsophisticated tastes, if you must, but I liked the music on this disc quite a lot, actually, and I’ve told you why. It sounds nice and it’s pleasant to listen to, and for someone who is not properly wired to appreciate much in modern music that sounds to these ears like noise, dayenu as we say at this time of year—it is sufficient.

Raymond Tuttle
Fanfare, June 2009

“Terrific, terrific, terrific!” That was Jonathan Leshnoff’s reaction, when he learned that Naxos would be releasing a CD (reviewed below) devoted entirely to his music. In his mid-thirties, Leshnoff still is in what some might call his infancy as a composer, but he already has plenty to be excited about, and there’s even more to be excited about coming in the not too distant future. I caught up with Leshnoff by telephone as he was finishing his day at Towson University, where he is an associate professor in the Department of Music. His enthusiasm for music—and not just his own—was impossible to miss.

Leshnoff talks about the importance of harmony in his music. “Although I never studied with him directly, Stephen Albert was very important to my development as a composer. I met him while I was still at the Peabody Conservatory. This was in 1992, a year before he died, and he was giving a master class there. I was instantly struck by his passion and by his focus on the subject of harmony. He said that Schoenberg was wrong—that there was a lot about harmony that had yet to be discovered. Since then, I’ve studied a lot of Albert’s scores, and his influence has caused me to come up with my own harmonic system. My ultimate heroes, though, are Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Bartók—the standard classics. I’m always trying to do something new with what I think the basic principles of good music are.”

Leshnoff was strongly influenced by Morris Cotel, a professor of composition at Peabody since the early 1970s who unexpectedly died last October at the age of 65. “His approach to teaching composition was completely Zen,” comments Leshnoff. “He believed that when composers are completely immersed in their work, they should be left alone. And so, when I was deeply into my composing, which was most of the time, he would stay away. At the time, this was kind of frustrating, but in retrospect, his method of teaching allowed me to find my own voice. He encouraged me, and he let me know what other composers’ works I should look at. His approach was very global.”

When asked if this is a good time to be a composer, Leshnoff pauses for a long moment. “The environment is a lot freer and more open now than it was 25 or 30 years ago. There’s been a lot of progress in the last 15 years or so. I’m lucky—unlike composers such as George Rochberg and Stephen Albert—because I haven’t had to suffer and be harshly criticized for writing music that isn’t in vogue. It’s nice to be free and to be able to explore.”

How does Leshnoff know when a new work is successful? “I am a pretty harsh critic. I don’t let a piece get out until I’ve looked at it over and over again, and know that I love it. In my music, I feel that I am taking people on a journey, whether it is to a good place or a bad place. I don’t ask for a musically educated audience—not at all. Of course it’s wonderful when I can get down and dirty, and explain what I am doing in my music on a theoretical level, but my ultimate goal is to communicate, to have any listener be able to relate to what I am saying in my music. I want them to listen, and to say that they saw an ocean, or a forest, or that the music made them remember something from their past. That’s what I really want. That’s my measure of success.”

Leshnoff was thrilled when he learned that Naxos had committed itself to his music—and not just to one CD, but to three. “For anyone, regardless of the field, it’s nice to feel that, after years and years of being a student, you are doing something important, something that makes a difference. In a sense, you’re guiding people, and after you leave this world, you want to feel that you have changed lives. For a composer, it’s one thing to compose your scores and to get them published, but a CD—there’s one medium that, even though it won’t be around forever, will be around for a while. I feel like it’s my contribution to the world, and so I am happy about the new CD. I’m happy that there are two more coming out.”

Leshnoff’s collaborators on the new CD sound happy to be playing his music. Conductor Markand Thakar comments, “The Violin Concerto does what music is supposed to do: it grabs us, it sucks us in, it takes us over, it exalts us, it makes us better. When I recommended to the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra trustees that we commission Jonathan’s concerto, I was hoping for a good work; what we got was a lasting one. I’ve had the opportunity to conduct the work in several performances, and each was greeted with standing ovations and multiple curtain calls. The response is merited: the work is cohesive and powerfully moving. I’m honored for the opportunity to have conducted the premiere recording.” Violinist Charles Wetherbee adds, “The concerto is a perfect marriage of virtuoso writing for the instrument, balance between the soloist and accompaniment, and soulful melody. Jonathan Leshnoff is an astounding composer, and his music never fails to deliver one of the most important things, for me at least: goose bumps! From the moment I saw the first drafts, I was sure that this was going to be an important and successful new work, and a wonderful addition to the violin literature.”

According to Leshnoff, “The two CDs that will be released in 2010 started out as projects conducted by Michael Stern, who recorded my symphony with the IRIS Orchestra, and also recorded a few chamber works. We just recorded the last orchestral track in January—50 minutes in the can, 10 minutes to be edited—and then it goes off to Naxos. One of the pieces on that CD will be a double concerto featuring violist Roberto Diaz and violinist Charles Wetherbee, who plays my Violin Concerto on the CD that was just released. The chamber CD is one track away, and finishing it will take another year or so.”

What is Leshnoff’s 10-year plan? “It’s always been my life’s goal to write symphonies, so I’d love to complete a few more of them. Maybe some song cycles. I’m developing my craft. I’m a very practical composer. When I started to get serious about composing, I kept insisting that I wanted to write only orchestral works. This was silly, because people were approaching me with requests for music in other genres. Someone came to me and asked me for a marimba piece. So I started studying the marimba and all the potential that it had, and the piece turned out well. Then I had a commission for a piece for E♭ alto saxophone, violin, and piano—not the easiest ensemble to write for! But once I started studying the saxophone and the violin, I said, ‘Wow, listen to all these interesting combinations!’ It’s funny—as a result of writing these pieces for anyone who would play them, I ended up with a nice portfolio of music and recordings. Then, by passing them around, eventually I got to where I wanted to be, writing the kind of music I am writing today. My bottom line is this: be open. I’m proud of being practical, and of being able to adjust to what is asked of me.”

What about Leshnoff the university professor—what is he like? “I teach orchestration, contemporary music, ear-training, and harmony. I like my job very much, because it also gives me the time and space to do what I want. Occasionally I do intro classes, and I enjoy those too. Hindemith, Piston, Randall Thompson—these composers all taught harmony, and they had a very firm grounding in the craft. One of my colleagues actually studied counterpoint one-on-one with Thompson. He went to Thompson’s office for two hours every week to write fugues as a sort of independent study project. These composers had a very strong theoretical backing, and that’s one of the reasons I like to teach an introductory theory class, explaining the elements of Western music. There’s a tradition there.

Leshnoff might compose his music for anyone who wants to listen, but it seems to me that the inattentive listener will be cheated out of most of its pleasures. Indeed, it wasn’t until I sat down and really listened to this CD on my home stereo that I realized how fine this music is. It asks the listener to devote time and attention to it; there’s no pandering here, but I think it still is accessible to anyone who is sufficiently open-minded enough to enjoy Hindemith, Bartók, or late Stravinsky, for example. (Surely that’s not too much to ask!)

The Violin Concerto could well be a significant addition to the instrument’s repertoire. Five movements are indicated, but because there is no pause between the first and second movements, and none between the fourth and fifth, and also because there is a tempo change in the fourth, the work’s structure is more complicated than the CD’s track listing indicates. The concerto opens with a figure not unlike Westminster chimes, and because it reappears several times throughout the concerto, it serves as a kind of guidepost. The opening Allegro drives forward with purpose, and is serious but not grim. There is much to interest the ears, not least in the orchestration, which is consistently imaginative. The solo writing is idiomatic, as if Leshnoff composed it for himself. At 7:57, the second movement (Slow) is the concerto’s longest, and it is here that we are introduced to Leshnoff’s more lyrical side. Again, orchestral colors are deployed with an artist’s sensitivity, and the musical argument is well considered and involving, with an emotional intensity suggesting that the composer, in spite of his age, is something of an old soul. If Samuel Barber had lived longer, he might have written music not unlike this. The central Scherzo lightens the mood—for a time—without disturbing the concerto’s emotional trajectory. Prokofiev comes to mind. Leshnoff uses the orchestra masterfully, avoiding both cliché and novelty for novelty’s sake. The fourth movement (Slow–Fast) returns to the mood of the second, but it is more unsettled, and soon becomes agitated. A crisis is reached, and then resolved—but only partly—in the closing Elegy, which again is reminiscent of Barber. The music stops before one expects it to, giving the concerto an open-ended feeling. Although he didn’t write a programmatic work, one of Leshnoff’s inspirations was a story told by a Holocaust survivor. During forced labor, SS guards would make prisoners sing Nazi propaganda songs, but the prisoners would insert their prayers into these songs. In light of this story, one can better understand why the concerto ends as it does.

Distant Reflections is scored for solo violin, piano, and strings, with an offstage string quartet. This might be thought of as Leshnoff’s response to Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia, except here Leshnoff uses fragments from a Mass by Ockeghem. As in the concerto (but without sounding like it), a very refined ear is at work (in terms of both color and form), and Distant Reflections is at once sensual and serious. Without talking down to listeners or gimmickry, Leshnoff indeed has succeeded in writing new music that could appeal to many.

Pearl German is the wife of Jeremiah German, “a college professor with an abiding love of music,” according to Naxos’s booklet notes. The String Quartet No. 1 was a commission in honor of German’s wife, on the occasion of her 80th birthday. The four movements, beginning with “Winter,” are named after the four seasons. Again, this is not a programmatic work—there are no Vivaldian stamping feet or barking dogs. Instead, Leshnoff seems to be aiming at a more metaphysical reflection on the cycles of life. Ending the work with “Autumn” allows Leshnoff yet another downbeat ending, which he seems to like and does well. In terms of both timbre and emotions, this quartet is refined, eschewing that which is obvious or easy. As in the other two works, his writing is concise; Leshnoff is not a composer who goes on talking after he has nothing more to say.

These performances, all supervised by the composer, make an excellent case for the music. Wetherbee is a first-class violinist, whether he is a soloist or within the very able Carpe Diem String Quartet, whose other members are Wendy Morton, Korine Fujiwara, and Robert Firdman. The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, founded in the 1980s, plays with polish under the direction of Markand Thakar, and with evident appreciation for Leshnoff’s ideas. There are some weird and annoying sonic artifacts, only noticeable during pauses and very quiet sections in the recording of the String Quartet; it sounds as if another ensemble were playing in a studio two doors down. Otherwise, Naxos’s recording is excellent.

Labels like to push their hot new composers, and after a while, one gets skeptical over this or that so-called discovery. Leshnoff, however, is excitingly “the real thing,” and I expect we’ll be hearing a lot more from and about him in years to come.

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, May 2009

Many classical music enthusiasts have probably never heard of American composer Jonathan Leshnoff (b. 1973), but judging by the quality of his music on this new release from Naxos, it won’t be long before they do. An associate professor of music at Towson University in Maryland, he is composer-in-residence with the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra (BCO), also featured here. And considering the growing number of prestigious commissions for and performances of his music, the BCO was lucky to get him! While the selections on this disc are definitely contemporary sounding, they have an emotional depth and sincerity that give them immediate listener appeal.

This sampling of his creative efforts opens with the 2007 revised version of a violin concerto commissioned by a consortium of orchestras, and originally completed in 2005. It’s in five movements and begins with a Westminster Quarters-like motif (WQ) struck by the orchestra. Shivering muted brass then announces the arrival of the violin, which becomes increasingly agitated as it darts in and out of the orchestra. Brilliant scoring and fancy violin work characterize most of the opening movement before the pace gradually slackens, leading right into the adagio. Meditative and prayerful with a couple of references to the WQ, this is the concerto’s emotional center of gravity. And well it should be, because it was inspired by a particularly moving story the composer heard from a Holocaust survivor (see the album notes).

There’s something rather avian about the scherzo that comes next. Here repeated rhythmic and thematic phrases in the orchestra conjure up images of preening, pecking fowl, while the violin displays in magnificent fashion like some exotic white peacock. The fourth movement is at first mournful. Then with a wave of Leshnoff’s magic wand, descending scales on the piano create a never-never land where the soloist becomes an Ariel. Not for long though, as the harmonic texture rapidly darkens, changing the mood to one of anguish. The movement suddenly ends with sustained, pessimistic Mahlerian passages for the strings that also serve as the beginning of the finale. Here the violin soon enters saying Kaddish, and the concerto concludes with an ambiguous cadence, which seems an appropriate observation about the future of humanity.

Lasting only ten minutes, Distant Reflections (2003) is for violin soloist, piano, strings and off-stage string quartet (members of the BCO on this disc). The composer was reportedly interested in medieval, renaissance and early baroque music when he wrote this, and it certainly shows. As a matter of fact he even quotes a melody from the kyrie of Johannes Ockeghem’s (c. 1410–1497) Missa prolationum. The hushed opening with brief contemplative passages for the piano and violin, immediately engages the listener’s attention. The pace and intensity build with three-note Bartokian cries from the violin, and the piece becomes a dramatic, late-renaissance fantasia. This suddenly fades and the work concludes peacefully with a reference to the Ockeghem [track-6, beginning at 08:13] as the soloist soars heavenwards.

The last selection is Leshnoff’s first string quartet, which takes the form of another musical seasons. Accordingly it bears the subtitle "The Four Seasons," but is also known by the name "Pearl German" because it was commissioned to celebrate that lady’s eightieth birthday. Like Alexander Glazunov’s Seasons, it begins with "Winter" where frosty melodic fragments played over sustained chords suggest snow-covered fields. Feverish alternating arco and pizzicato passages characterize "Spring," which ends abruptly as an extended melody in the upper strings ushers in the lazy days of "Summer." The movement increases in tempo as well as structural density, reaching a dramatic climax only to fall back and conclude as it began. Auburn-colored, soaring melodic lines characterize "Autumn," which builds in emotional intensity, and then fades like a fall sunset, ending the quartet in medias res.

Our soloist here is Charles Wetherbee, who is the first violinist of the Carpe Diem String Quartet (CDSQ) also heard on this release. By his own admission, he’s hooked on Leshnoff’s music and was apparently of considerable help to the composer in revising the concerto. His performances of it as well as the other selections reveal a deep feeling for and total commitment to these emotionally charged scores. The superb BCO under conductor Markand Thakar provide outstanding support in the first two works, while the relatively new CDSQ once again proves itself a class act in the third.

The sound is demonstration quality! Although the orchestral selections were recorded at a different location than the quartet, the soundstages are uniformly ideal. All the orchestral detail of the first two scores is in sharp focus. The instrumental timbre for all three is totally natural across the entire frequency spectrum with silky strings and a well rounded piano sound. Contemporary music lovers and audiophiles will treasure this disc!

Tim Smith
The Baltimore Sun, April 2009

Jonathan Leshnoff’s Violin Concerto struck me as a major addition to the repertoire when I first heard it in 2006. I’m even more convinced of that quality, having revisited the work on an all-Leshnoff CD from the Naxos label that features violinist Charles Wetherbee and the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Markand Thakar.

Leshnoff, a Towson University faculty member whose international career has been developing rapidly, found inspiration for the concerto in a chilling tale he heard from a Holocaust survivor—how inmates, forced by SS guards to sing Nazi propaganda songs, subtly wove prayers into the music.

The concerto is richly layered and almost painfully beautiful; the violin’s soaring, searing lyricism in the second movement and haunted introspection in the finale are but two examples. Deep implications seem to lie behind each dab of orchestral coloring, too, adding to the work’s cumulative power. Wetherbee is a persuasive and engaging soloist; the BCO, sensitively led by Thakar, sounds polished and deeply involved.

The dark lyricism of the concerto is also presented in the atmospheric Deep Reflections (2003), for violin, piano, string orchestra and off-stage string quartet. It receives a strong performance on the disc, as does the 2006 String Quartet No. 1, with its eventful movements named for the four seasons.

All in all, it’s a strong addition to the “American Classics” series from Naxos and a timely reminder of the BCO’s worth. Financial pressures caused the ensemble to suspend operations for the second half of this season, but latest word is that things are looking up for a return in the fall.

Karl Miller
Classical Net, April 2009

Engaging tonal music in fine performances.

Based upon the music on this disc, Jonathan Leshnoff’s (b1973) style might be best described as classically structured, lyric romanticism. His Violin Concerto, in its revised version of 2007, is cast in five movements. It displays creative orchestration which provides a substantial range of color with the minimum resources of a chamber orchestra. As can be found in music of the baroque, each movement is clearly based on a single tempo. The melodies are formally organized along classical structures of evenly balanced, tightly constructed phrases.

The first movement of the Concerto is perhaps the most attractive of all of the works. It offers engaging thematic material and a strong organizational skill. I found the slow movements to be less successful. Climaxes seemed to be artificially constructed by means of increasing dynamics versus the exigencies of any developmental logic. The third movement, in particular, included some gestures which reminded me of the Symphony “Riverrun” by Stephen Albert. The final movement of the Concerto is quite lovely without being sentimental or trite.

“Distant Reflections” seems, at times, to be something of a tribute to the music of Barber, yet without the range of expression to be found in the works of that great master. It is, however, a very attractive work even if I did find my attention waver from time to time.

The String Quartet is in four movements: Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn. To my ears it is a less successful work. The first movement seems to lack focus. The second movement also seems to ramble. Just when you think the thematic material is moving somewhere it dissolves into gesture. The Summer movement seems to be more gesture than substance. As I listened to the last movement I could not help but think that I was listening to an attempt to paraphrase the adagio from Barber’s String Quartet.

Overall, one finds the music competently written, yet no distinct personality seems to emerge. There are those frequent references that remind me of the music of Stephen Albert. Leshnoff seems to find greater focus in the fast movements. Slow sections seem to ramble at times and become laden with somewhat empty rhetoric. That is not to say they do not have moments of great beauty, which they do in abundance.

Violinist Charles Wetherbee gives a superb performance of the Concerto. He is a superb musician who is very respectful of the music…perhaps too respectful. I would have appreciated a bit more expression in his playing. Conductor Markand Thakar gives a very well-controlled performance providing great clarity to the music. The playing of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra is remarkably fine. They play with great élan. The stars on this disc are the players of the Carpe Diem String Quartet. They are highly gifted musicians who have a superb sense of ensemble. I was greatly impressed with their playing.

The recorded sound is excellent. Even with the above stated reservations, this is music worthy of repeated listening.

Robert R Riley, March 2009

I was impressed by Leshnoff's vivid imagination and sophisticated ear for sonorities and the soaring lyricism and passion of his music. These works have immediate appeal, but the attraction strengthens with further acquaintance because the music has an underlying introspective character of real depth. The Baltimore Sun suggested that, despite his originality, Leshnoff "seems to be channeling, say, Samuel Barber" in the Violin Concerto. I saw, or rather heard, the point, but more in respect to the Autumn movement of the String Quartet, which is reminiscent of Barber in his meltingly lovely Adagio; and perhaps in the mesmerizing Distant Reflections, a ten-minute piece for off-stage string quartet, on-stage violinist, pianist, and strings. But what struck me in the Violin Concerto was what sounded like the clear and laudable influence of the music of my late friend Stephen Albert, one of the champions of the return of tonality and melody in American music…What we hear in the Naxos CD is a 2007 revision of Leshnoff's original 2005 work. Completely new is the fifth movement, Elegy, which is deeply affecting and exquisitely beautiful. So is the second movement, marked Slow. I remember David Diamond, another great American composer whom Leshnoff calls to mind, saying that "you must develop the long line in your music, try to write very long melodies…There must be radiant melody and urgency of rhythmic impulse." Here is where Leshnoff excels. It is hard to think of a recent work that can compare to the length of his melodic lines in this concerto, or to their radiant beauty. He is also, like Albert, rhythmically and sonically alive. These long lines are set within glimmering orchestration. His use of the piano in its lower registers to function as a kind of musical undertow reminds me of Albert, as does his opening brass declamation in the first movement…violinist Charles Wetherbee plays as if his life depended on it, ably supported by the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, under conductor Markand Thakar.

The String Quartet No. 1 is a "four seasons" piece, very attractively and imaginatively done. I have already remarked upon the Barber-like beauty of the Autumn movement. This is a very engaging work, which receives a fine performance from the Carpe Diem String Quartet.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2009

Born in New Jersey in 1973, Jonathan Leshnoff has the potential to become the leading American composer of the 21st century. Putting aside the atonality that has disenfranchised American audiences from their concert halls, he shows there are millions of miles still left to explore in the world of tonality. Yet it is a modern slant that seeks out new sonorities, the five movements of the Violin Concerto—here played in the revision of 2007—being often jagged, rhythmically unusual and at times phrased in long statements. It sees the violin as a lyric instrument, frequently soaring in ecstatic flights of fantasy, set beside a wondrous world of delicate orchestral fabric. At times I am reminded of Szymanowski, though Leshnoff is creating his own very personal style. Try track 4 to enter that musical world. The First String Quartet, subtitled Pearl German, so as to carry the name of the dedicatee, is further subtitled The Four Seasons. Opening in the icy climate of Winter, with the leader given a solo role throughout, Spring is highly active and with the wind ever present, Summer bringing the work’s first climatic passage. A passionate Autumn brings the work to a close. The release is completed by the 2003 score, Distant Reflections, a work for solo violin, off-stage string quartet, piano and strings. Again a rhapsodic concept demanding well-focused intonation to create unusual harmonies. The admirable soloist throughout is the leader of the Carpe Diem String Quartet, Charles Wetherbee. The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra play their rôle with total assurance under the baton of Markand Thakar, while the Carpe Diem are excellent in the quartet. Sound quality is equally first class.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group